It can be hard enough for teachers exert control over the typical high-energy classroom. It’s a whole new challenge when that classroom is rolling down the street.
While teachers can call students to their desks when they act up, “The bus driver’s going down the road at 30, 35 miles an hour and has the same thing to deal with,” said Bob Gorski, who worked in the Richfield Schools transportation office for the better part of his 37-year career with the district.
As bus drivers handle the responsibility of getting students to and from school safely every day, this year for the first time they are the honorees of a governor’s proclamation in Minnesota. Feb. 22 wasSchool Bus Driver Appreciation Day, as declared Gov. Mark Dayton.
In the proclamation, the governor praised the state’s school bus drivers who transport more than 760,000 students per day. They do so, the proclamation states, in a fashion that is eight times safer than travel by car.
It’s hard to truly understand the daily experience of a bus driver without being one, said the 62-year-old Gorski, who began driving part-time after spending 37 years working for the district full-time, running the transportation office for half that period.
It’s difficult to observe bus drivers in their true environment, he explained, since the young passengers tend to change their behavior when a guest is present. Normally, it’s just the driver, as many as 60 kids or even more, and the road.
“The administrators, the principals – they know what kind of job we have,” Gorski said. “But sometimes the parents – I don’t know they realize how tough a job can it can be.”
The drivers do receive tokens of appreciation, though. It could be shouts of thanks from the bus stop as parents watch their children driven away, he said. It could be small gifts or drawings, he added.
“I wouldn’t do this for a million bucks,” some parents tell him.
Bus drivers would have an easier challenge if they weren’t responsible for the safety of dozens of souls at a time.
“They have a great responsibility, and they have a lot of students on their buses every single day,” said Dan Kretsinger, supervisor of buildings, grounds and transportation for Richfield Schools.
Collectively, the district’s bus drivers run about 250 routes per day, shepherding students ranging from pre-schoolers to high-schoolers.
Aside from transporting those students with a semblance of order, drivers have to worry about maneuvering what is usually the biggest object on the road. Gorski recalled rain turning to ice during one particular shift earlier this winter. “Couldn’t steer the bus,” he said.
Sometimes the challenge is the other drivers, some of whom still ignore the stop arms that buses deploy every time students get on and off, a safety feature that’s been standard for decades.
“You’d be surprised how many people run the signs,” said Howard Anderson, another semi-retiree driving for Richfield Schools. “They’re on their cell phones, they just drive right through. You blast them with an air horn. I’ve had people just look at me and drive by and smile.”
‘The high school kids will eat you alive’
While they can’t control the weather or other motorists, school bus drivers do have their methods for maintaining law and order.
If things get out of hand, pulling over to the side of the road helps, Gorski said. “Then if you shut the bus off, the bus gets quiet,” he said.
Usually, the source of all the commotion can be traced to select individuals. “It only takes two or three kids to make a bus noisy,” Gorski explained.
Bus drivers once had more leeway in dispensing discipline, said Anderson. The 61-year-old first drove a bus at the age of 18, while still a high school student in Minnetonka, before getting back behind the wheel decades later.
“You could scream at a kid, you could do whatever,” Anderson said of the old expectations that guided bus drivers.
These days, he employs a preventative approach to misbehavior.
“The high school kids will eat you alive,” Anderson said, “but if you treat them with respect, they’ll treat you with respect. … If you’re fair and square, they respect that and they don’t bug you.”
Gorski tries to get to know his riders. He might ask about their band instruments, or the sports they play.
He especially gets a kick out of the younger ones.
“Some of those kids are just so cute, and they’re so sweet,” Gorski said.
They’ll dutifully inform him of the weather he has just been white-knuckling through, he said. Or, they’ll tell him about their trip to McDonald’s the night before.
“Everything is new to them,” Gorski said. “They bring something exciting on the bus every single day.”
For Anderson, the job was agreeable enough to make him come back after decades away. “I guess I just enjoy it,” he said.
Gorski is so transparent in his enthusiasm that he’s been accused of being a “company man.” It’s a title he doesn’t back away from. “I said, ‘You know what, I guess I am. This job has outlasted anything else,’” he recounted.
He did, after all, spend most of his adult life working for the district where he sent his own three children to school.
The job provides sufficient day-brighteners to keep his spirits up, including the tradition he hears almost every time he brings a sports team home from a competition, as they serenade him with the ditty, “Three Cheers for the Bus Driver.”
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.